The Library of Congress may be the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution, but nestled just behind it is a theatrical treasure trove at Folger Shakespeare Library, boasting the world’s largest collection of printed works by William Shakespeare.
Inside the hallowed halls sits Folger Theatre, staging Shakespearean works as close to the text as you’ll get. Its latest, “1 Henry IV,” is the second play in the playwright’s tetralogy of “Richard II,” “1 Henry IV,” “2 Henry IV” and “Henry V.”
“Bolingbroke has become king, he’s Henry IV, and the people who helped put him on the throne aren’t getting their payback, from their point of view, so there’s a rebellion brewing,” said actor Ed Gero. “Unfortunately, Henry had murdered the previous king, Richard II, under the cover of darkness and is carrying all this guilt, so he wants to amend for that, go to Jerusalem, start a crusade and all this stuff, but he can’t do that because the rebels are saying, ‘Where’s our piece?'”
The story primarily follows his son, Prince Hal, who spends his time partying with the seedy folks at Boar’s Head Tavern and Gad’s Hill. His father disapproves of his son’s carousing, but Prince Hal nevertheless takes an unusual path to the throne, ultimately confronting his adversary Hotspur on the battlefield.
“We’re following the Luke Skywalker of the story, Prince Hal,” Gero said. “The heir apparent is hanging out with this dude Falstaff who’s doing a lot of drinking, thieving and being just a relatively bad guy — a little older version of Han Solo. We first meet them in the morning after a night of drinking and debauchery. … He’s been out of the palace for at least a month hanging with these reprobates.”
Together, Hal and Falstaff form one of the real buddy teams in theater history.
“There’s a really interesting tension between the two,” Gero said. “Hal is wise to their ways and decides to use what he’s learned from them to set himself up. If he has this reputation of being this bad boy when he really isn’t a bad boy, when he flips that and becomes the real guy, people will be wowed by it. So, in a way, Hal is using Falstaff as a steppingstone to become the king that everyone’s going to love because his father isn’t having a good time with the body politic.”
Not only is Falstaff pivotal to the plot, he’s also just a good time to play.
“Falstaff is a guy that was once someone of some repute and has fallen away. He’s older, he’s given over to eating, drinking and let himself go. In preparation for that, I spent a month eating my way through Italy,” Gero said. “He’s a great role because he’s a fictional character inside this history, so in a way, he’s Shakespeare’s voice, he comments on the way the world is, he’s free to be really straightforward and he talks directly to the audience. He’s one of the great roles.”
For Gero, it’s the latest notch in a belt that includes Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre and Justice Antonin Scalia at Arena Stage.
“He’s the largest role that Shakespeare wrote because he appears in four plays,” Gero said. “He comes at the end of a Shakespearean career that you sort of work your way toward. I never thought of Falstaff as one of the roles I would play, but for actors of a certain age, it’s a great role. It has comedy, it also has great pathos. He’s humanity. He’s a great role. Fun to play.”
He’s joined by Avery Whitted as Prince Hal and Peter Crook as Henry IV.
“Avery is a young, terrific actor, who hails out of Rutgers’ program in New Jersey,” Gero said. “We have a great time together. He’s very amenable, we play and have at each other. … Peter, we actually studied under the same person many years ago. He’s terrific, too. We have a lot of similar contacts, a lot of people in our background, so we’re the two old guys in our show. Hal is stuck trying to manage his way between two daddies, the bad daddy and the good daddy.”
It’s all brought to life visually by director Rosa Joshi, movement designer Alice Gosti, scenic designer Sara Ryung Clement and lighting designer Jesse Belsky.
“The set is really interesting,” Gero said. “It looks like a construction site, and I suppose that’s a metaphor for the world that either Henry is trying to construct or is being deconstructed after Richard. Then we show up in Eastcheap, I call it Eastcheap 54, a lot of techno music, neon lights, it’s crazy time. … That’s the first act, we see them in that world. … Then we shift into war and we see the battle.”
The costumes by Kathleen Geldard are intentionally timeless.
“The clothes have a silhouette of the period, but they’re very contemporary,” Gero said. “We’re using this camouflage kind of pants. It wants to be universal, so it looks back to that period but it looks very contemporary at the same time. It’s timeless. That’s the way Rosa Joshi directed the project to make it accessible to audiences of all ages and tastes, saying, ‘Come in and just listen to the story.'”
Indeed, it’s the text, the language, that rules the day in “1 Henry IV.”
“There’s one phrase that struck me when I first read the play,” Gero said. “He’s on the battlefield and says, ‘Give me life. I don’t care about honor, I don’t like such grinning honor as this dead person here, but give me life. If I can save that, so, but if not, honor comes unlooked for, and there’s an end.’ He just wants to survive. That whole idea of an aging man facing his death, living terrible, loving his life but he’s about to pay the band, is the center of that character for me.”
For Gero, it’s also a personal full-circle moment to come back to Folger.
“This was my starting place in Washington,” Gero said. “I came down here in 1983 [for] ‘Troilus and Cressida’ and played ‘Henry V’ at the end of the year. I stayed in this building for 10 years and did every single play. There are a lot of memories. We had our wedding reception in the great hall. … It’s been 15 years since I’ve played here, but it still has a feel of a community inside the city. It’s a wonderful place to work. You get to go down into the stacks, read Holinshed’s Chronicles, look at the actual books. For an actor doing this material, it’s Mecca.”
Find more details on the theater website. Hear our full chat with Ed Gero below: